An ethical obscenity

Consider – as my law school professors used to say – the following hypothetical:

You are the CEO of  an organization and are looking to hire a head of procurement. You think a good person for the job would be X, who currently works for one of your suppliers. You discuss this with X, who is interested in the job, and tell him that if he comes to work for you he would need to stop working for the supplier and also give up his ownership interest in that entity. He responds that he shouldn’t have to give up both – either surrendering his management role or ownership should be enough. How do you respond?

Today is the one-year anniversary of the start of Donald Trump’s presidency. While there is a fair bit of disagreement on whether he has used this tenure to help the country, there should be no doubt that he has helped himself – by benefitting from conflicts of interest to a degree that previously would have been unimaginable for a U.S. president.

As reported last week by Reuters and others, Sixty-four trade groups, foreign governments, Republican candidates and others stayed at or held events at properties linked to U.S. President Donald Trump during Trump’s first year in office, a political watchdog group said in a report released on Tuesday. The arrangements represented “unprecedented conflicts of interest” because Trump oversees the federal government and has not divested from properties he owns or that carry his name, Public Citizen, a nonpartisan group, said in the report. Shortly before taking office last year, Trump said he would hand off control of his global business empire to his sons Donald Jr. and Eric, and move his assets into a trust to help ensure that he would not consciously take actions as president that would benefit him personally. Many government and private ethics watchdogs said the president should have gone farther, divesting assets that could cause a conflict of interest.

The absurdity of the notion that giving up control of an asset mitigates conflicts of interest arising from ownership of such asset will be evident to anyone who has filled out a COI questionnaire – meaning not just those in the public sector but private sector as well (including those involved in the above “hypo”). On such forms, employees must disclose asset ownership AND asset control – not one or the other. As long as an owner can know who is spending money in ways that benefit his asset – and if Public Citizen can know such things President Trump surely can too – then the conflict is there. Period.

Getting more attention last week was a report that President Trump’s lawyer had paid $130,000 to a porn star to keep silent about an affair she and Trump had allegedly had some years ago.  While actually press worthy for reasons that most salacious stories are not, the greater obscenity to me was in the COI story – in some ways worse precisely because it is not being hidden. 

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